Published: January 20, 2014
Before they teamed up to battle the other brainy hooligans, Hamburger and Frye did not share a plate, or even a table.
They were rivals, pure and simple. Hatfield and McCoy. Frazier and Ali. Trivia-slingers staring each other down across a shadowy bar room as the questions flew.
Then one fateful night, someone couldn't make it to Geeks Who Drink pub trivia. Then someone else bailed. Suddenly, Keith Hamburger and Matt Frye were men without full teams. Geeks In Danger of Drinking Alone.
For the record, Frye says, "we are nemeses" - emphasis on the present tense. "I'm Superman. He's Lex Luthor."
"But we're a pretty formidable team when we join forces," Hamburger says.
Hamburger is a generous Lex Luthor, gamely suffering as Frye rubs his bald head for luck before every-man-for-himself bonus question time. He knows that in this alternate universe of brains, beer and bluster, the evil geniuses often finish first.
It's all in good fun
As bad guys go, Hamburger's a really good one.
Derek Knight - aka "The Dark Lord of Quiz" - met Hamburger five years ago when he started leading Geeks Who Drink quizzes part-time at the Old Chicago on Tejon Street. The 8-year-old, Denver-based company hosts more than 400 competitions in 29 states, offering prizes that include minor cash awards and free libations. As many as 450 competitors in teams of up to six try their luck in the half-dozen quizzes hosted each week at Colorado Springs bars.
Hamburger is a regular at several of those events.
"He's probably the most committed non-employee I know. It's his main source of fun," says Knight, who leads the Thursday night quizzes at Phantom Canyon Brewing Co. "If there's any semblance of a villain, he would be it. He inspires a general loathing."
He also inspires cries of "Stop winning!" "Go home!" and phrases not suitable for print. It's all in good fun, says everyone - after the sting of losing has passed.
"I'm just kind of a dork. I have my good weeks and my bad weeks," says Frye, an Army officer who took his wife to a Geeks trivia event for their first date. "Keith is an uber-geek."
Enjoying the role of villain
Hamburger began his trivia run as part of a crack team of minutia masters who were virtually unbeatable, Knight says. During one stretch, they won so consistently that Knight offered a bounty - his own $25 bar credit - to any team able to knock them off their pedestal.
It worked, eventually.
Times have changed since those salad days of Springs Geekdom. Core members of that unbeatable team from the early years at Jack Quinn's and Old Chicago moved away; the magic sputtered.
But not for Hamburger. To the local trivia set, he represents something of a Ken Jennings, the "Jeopardy!" contestant whose 74-game winning streak ultimately turned some fans into haters.
"Pretty much every team wants to beat Keith, and he embraces that role. Case in point, Monday night I went to Jack Quinn's with the express purpose of beating Keith," Knight says. "He likes to win. He likes being smart. He likes being hated."
A handful of usual suspects still join in regularly, including David Adcox, who's competed on teams with Hamburger for six years.
"He enjoys the role of arch-villain," Adcox says. "I'm the quiet member of the team. I let him take the heat when we win."
Not a trivial pursuit
Geeks Who Drink is only a trivia contest, but to Hamburger, a self-described Libertarian anarchist who arrives at the 8 p.m. quizzes an hour early to claim a good table and have dinner, it is not trivial. It's by design.
"The biggest part of my retirement plan is the development of skills and knowledge," he says.
Hamburger has spent his 51 years doing just that. His resume is eclectic, with a degree in physics, early work at an oil refinery, as a disc jockey and pizza delivery guy, four runs for public office on the Libertarian ticket and a stint as the party's state chair. After a 16-year career in computer sales and support, Hamburger refashioned himself as a general contractor and now does yard cleanup, drywall, painting, plumbing and "whatever anyone will pay me for."
He credits his trivia knowledge to voracious reading and a vast and growing range of interests, from economics to home-brewing to boats. He's also learned how best to access info buried deep in memory.
"I do hold onto a lot, but photographic memory? I don't have that. A lot of stuff isn't from remembered details. It's not knowing the answer but knowing the stuff around it and making a good guess," he says.
Given the resources, Hamburger has a knack for assembling a learned and well-rounded team.
"He's smart, he's got a lot of diverse knowledge and knows how to surround himself with people who fill the gaps in his knowledge," Knight says.
Lacking the resources, Hamburger will go it alone, though he'd rather not.
"I'd love to develop a team that would show up all the time, with someone who knows music. Playing alone is less fun, and it drastically reduces your changes of winning," he says. "But some people just don't want to play with me."
Insult or flattery?
In the Geeks Who Drink landscape - or anywhere, really - an insult can represent the highest form of flattery if you let it, says Hamburger.
"Sometimes people will make rude comments about my name in their team names" - usually something derogatory mashed up with "burger," possibly R-rated, he says.
"While they have fun with it, in a lot of ways it's a kind of respect too. It's almost as good to be called out by the winning team in their name as it is to get first place yourself."
"I said 'almost,'" he says. The baiting and teasing and trash-talking ("I might be going down, but not to you!") is fleetingly earnest, usually gone by the next round of beer and questions, and part of the culture.
"I have the kind of personality that can draw out strong emotions in people, but I think most people like me OK," Hamburger says.
The Geek Bowl awaits
Later this week, Hamburger heads to Austin, Texas, to compete in his third Geek Bowl, the franchise's seventh national competition. The Saturday event is expected to draw more than 175 teams vying for bragging rights and $10,000 in prizes.
Hamburger had to buy a book of six tickets, but he's heading down alone. He has a few friends and relatives in the area; he'll make some calls.
"I'm pretty sure I'll have a team, but who exactly it will be I don't know," he says. "My whole goal is to not embarrass myself and have a good time. I consider anything in the top half to be not embarrassing myself."
While the general air of good times, camaraderie and competition holds true at the national level, some teams do take things very seriously, says Hamburger.
"There are people who put together a team specifically to win," he says.
Like that one time at Geek Bowl in Denver a few years back, when the winning team flew in a ringer, a game show champ from L.A.
Man, was that guy annoying.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364
For information, visit www.geekswhodrink.com